by: Janet L. Hanson – Originally Posted Mar 29, 2005Ruralnorthwest.com

BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) Railway Company, historically, is a major employer in the northwest region, according to Gus Melonas, Regional Director of Community and Media Relations for BNSF in Seattle, WA.

“With a 1.9 billion dollar system wide capital investment campaign this year; traveling work crews are moving through Idaho to upgrade tracks, rails and ties, said Melonas. “BNSF is aggressively hiring in the northwest and will continue to add jobs this year primarily for track maintenance crews, mechanical workers and conductor positions.”

According to Melonas, BNSF spent several million dollars in track improvements last year in the northern Panhandle and will again this year. BNSF recently added a significant number of jobs at the Hauser fueling facility near Sandpoint.

“We offer an online job application process,” said Melonas. “Individuals interested in seeking employment are encouraged to go to the BNSF website and click the careers link to submit their resume.

Historically, BNSF began running their main line operations through Idaho in 1881. “We aren’t going away. Our business is stronger than ever,” Melonas said. BNSF will celebrate 10 years of successful operation stemming from the merger between Burlington Northern and Santa Fe in 1995.

Included in the pages of the historical society’s local area history book titled, History of Boundary County Idaho, are recollections of early residents who referred to the Railway during the 1940’s when it was the Great Northern.

Area residents recall the early days of the railway system: Frank Hansen said, during the First World War, he was 13-years-old and remembers putting in the railway ties during his summer vacation. He worked 10 hours a day and earned $1.80 per hour. Ferne Cowley explained how her family arrived in Bonners Ferry on the Great Northern (GN) and recalled that many families came in on the “immigrant trains.”

“Dad got a couple of cars and he and one brother came with the cows, pigs, chickens and household goods. Later Mother and the rest of the family came on the passenger train.” Jessie Ellis, 86-year-old former resident of Boundary County, said he worked for the Great Northern in 1942 and really enjoyed it. “A man could live on fifty cents a day then, and I rented a small place for $4 per month.”

Based on information from the BNSF history section of their website, the following is a brief historical account of the development of BNSF.

“On January 6, 1893, in the towering Cascades near scenic Washington, the final spike was driven, and GN became the second railroad to link Puget Sound with the upper Midwest largely under the management of James Jerome Hill, The Empire Builder.” The creation of the Burlington Northern followed 77-years later.

GN grew out of another railway line that was born in 1857 and known as the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad Company. The Minnesota legislature, eager for rails in its territory, granted a charter to “construct a railroad in the direction of the Pacific.” Laying railway lines through an unsupported and wild countryside was no easy task and two forfeitures and reorganizations of the original company followed. Finally, James J. Hill, a St. Paul businessman took the helm as general manager, of the reorganized properties then renamed the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company.

The expansion of the railroad into Minnesota and the Dakota Territory continued. By 1885, the railway lines reached across 1,470 miles. According to BNSF, though some of the West was settled by the ox cart, “Hill Country”, the area where the Great Northern ran, “was settled from the boxcar.”

Hill’s company decided to provide transportation via the railway into the unsettled West and then assist settlers in the development that followed. His company became an authority on the best methods in agriculture and helped farmers improve their methods by teaching them soil diversification, introducing improved strains of seed and establishing experimental farms. Due to the success of this method, the BN was able to expand its lines without land grants or government subsidies of any kind, other than the original grant of the Minnesota & Pacific.

Because of his ability to create prosperous businesses, in 1896, Hill established a transportation service between Seattle and Oriental ports by negotiating an agreement with Nippon Yusen Kaisha, which at the time, was the largest steamship line in the Pacific. This enabled the beginnings of Seattle as a world port.

The Great Northern (GN) eventually merged with three other railroads; the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. (CB&Q); Northern Pacific Railway Co. (NP); and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway Co. (SP&S) creating the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN) on March 2, 1970. Prior to receiving the U.S. government approval from the ICC to merge the GN into the BN, Hill had attempted the merger four times (1893, 1901, 1927 and 1961) before finally receiving approval in 1970. Later, in 1980, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Co. (Frisco) also merged into BN.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) would eventually merge with the BN as well. The ATSF began under the leadership of noted Pennsylvanian, Cyrus Kurtz Holliday. Santa Fe encouraged passenger travel on its railway by creating a “romantic” vision of the new frontier and promoting the arts and culture of the Southwest and Native Americans. Santa Fe passenger service continued until 1971, when Amtrak took passenger service over from most railroads. ATSF is remembered for its “standard for luxury and attention to detail, with famed trains like the California Limited, the Super Chief, the El Capitan, the Valley Flyer and the Texas Chief.”

Entrepreneur Fred Harvey established restaurants and hotels along the route of the railway from 1876 through 1950s, some of which remain in operation today. Santa Fe is also credited with making industry-wide improvements.

For example, the Railway Co. developed the first land-bridge container train, linking Asia with Europe using Santa Fe and Penn Central (Conrail) lines. “A land-bridge refers to the opportunity to move international traffic across America,” explained Melonas.

Santa Fe also developed the first intermodal partnership with J.B. Hunt. It was the first partnership between the railroad and a trucking firm; it was a “stunning” move for the transportation industry. In 1993, Santa Fe also developed a centralized Systems Operations Center in Schaumburg, IL., making it the world’s largest fully distributed transportation management system.

“BNSF has historic ties with the past, yet we are extremely aggressive and look forward to meeting customer transportation needs in the future. We are always looking ahead,” said Melonas. “Much of the rail traffic today through northern Idaho represents intermodal operations. This is a transportation mode which links rail traffic with trucking companies and international steamship lines to provide national and international trade opportunities for the Northwest.”

Due to economic demands and strong international market trends, Melonas said record volumes of freight move across the northern tier. The railway continues to be a primary transporter of freight including everything from appliances, autos, textiles, chemicals, food products, lumber and agricultural commodities across north Idaho.

Because of the recent major capital investments to the Pacific Northwest trackage, Melonas said the railway operations are more streamlined and efficient. With these new track improvements, approximately 45 trains now move through Bonners Ferry in a 24-hour period. In addition, the Amtrak passenger train runs daily between Chicago and Seattle/Portland out of the Sandpoint Station, which includes westbound and eastbound train routes. Melonas said the government sets the fare rates and Amtrak pays a lease to BNSF to run on their tracks.

Railroads have transportation advantages that include a much smaller physical profile than the highway roads according to Melonas.

He explained that an average train hauls in excess of 230 highway semi loads thus decreasing highway traffic. This makes the railway environmentally friendly by reducing the national fuel consumption. BNSF also has aggressively removed older locomotives replacing them with newer, quieter, more efficient engines.

In September 2004, BNSF also opened a $42 million main line fueling facility at Hauser near the Idaho/Washington state border.

This facility operates much like a quick stop gas station and provides locomotives with light service and refueling explained Melonas. “During operations in December of last year, a fractured wastewater pipeline was discovered at this facility, along with cracks in the fueling platform and defective seals in leak detection pipes. BNSF is working to complete enhancements at the site and expects to resume normal operations by April 2005.”

With an obvious pride in the BNSF safety record, Melonas added, that since 1981, there has not been one fatality due to a HAZMAT release on the BNSF northern tier. He also said, “Classified hazardous material movements on our line have reached their destinations incident free and without release of product thereby experiencing a 99.99 percent safe operating record for 2004.”

BNSF is making tracks across the country serving thousands of communities with a 32,000-mile route system reaching 28 states and two provinces. This network spans from west coast ports through north Idaho, across the Plains to the Great Lakes regions and Chicago area, also linking Canada with western routes to the Mexican border.